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The best of both worlds: 'Smart Working' is about finding the right balance

Within the University of Twente, the HR directorate fulfils an important role as user of the concept of flexibility. Our department refers to this concept as “smart working”. Although there was some resistance to the principles in the initial stages, nowadays management and staff wouldn't want to work any other way. "I see far more pros than cons", says Mirjam Spit in her capacity as director of HR.

Four years ago, HR switched to a flexible accommodation concept; can you describe some of the reasons for this?
The Directorate HR was on the lookout for innovation and change and we were faced with a lack of space. This led to the idea of designing the department as a flexible environment. Initially there was not much support for the idea within HR, but the director at the time was enormously inspirational and succeeded in arousing enthusiasm. Though there used to be a degree of opposition among some of our staff, working in a flexible environment eventually grew to the extent that it has now become a permanent part of our work. It is wonderful to see how the ideas and perceptions of those involved have altered completely in such a short period of time.

You referred to flexspaces, but did any other facets of smart working (SW) contribute to that success?
Right from day one all staff-members were involved in setting up and designing the new workstations. We divided the staff into a number of teams that helped to think up ideas on accommodation, ICT and other supportive measures for incorporating SW within the department. For instance, they contributed to such matters as the number of open-plan office workstations and the number of stand alone workstations (for concentration), as well as the lay-out and design of the working environment. The way I see it, this is crucial: people have lost something, lost their familiar little space, but at the same time they have received something in return: a really lovely, high-quality workstation. We overcame initial resistance by getting our staff involved and we have created an environment in which everyone is extremely satisfied.

Apart from the actual design, making the switch to such a flexible working environment also demands a mental adjustment. How did that go within your own department?
A flexible environment, such as ours at HR, demands a numbers of alterations in behavioural rules and
agreements. For instance, we ask our staff to keep their voices down in open-plan places, but we also impose a number of simple principles. For example, now there are no fixed workplaces, it is important to leave behind a tidy workstation so someone else can work there. Such agreements require a small effort on everyone's part, but they definitely contribute to implementing the concept successfully.

In additional to flexspaces, working from home is also an important aspect of the flexible concept. How is that organized?
Working at a distance, for example, from home, was in fact a logical consequence of the changes implemented within HR. It soon became apparent that in some cases, tasks or projects that require concentration can best be done at home. Not having to travel to work can also be handy for taking care of a private matter. We allow our staff this opportunity, but only on the condition that they remain connected with their colleagues. I do not believe in a concept in which staff only work from home. Furthermore, joint agreements on the division of tasks and work are extremely important. And last but not least: you must have confidence in your team, in your colleagues. A key concept here is a sense of responsibility.

You mentioned the importance of continued bonds between staff. How do you manage to achieve this?
There is no explicit coordination, but we do repeatedly remind them of the importance of attending certain meetings or discussions. We also make increasing use of conference calls. Working from home means you can be reached, so 'phoning in' for meetings is possible and this is taking place with a growing frequency. The degree to which people can be reached is not strictly supervised, but people are called to account for their responsibility, so this is open to their own, sensible, interpretation.

Critics maintain that SW blurs the dividing line between work and private life. How do you feel about this?
It is wise to be aware of possible marginal comments and to use them in perfecting, or at least improving, the concept of SW. For instance, many scientists already often work independently of place and time, although this fact is not emphasized. However, not everyone is capable of achieving the right balance in their own work and private life. This is something of which we, management and staff, must remain alert. We do this by, for instance, discussing it regularly during progress meetings.

How do you see the future of flex-work within the UT? What expectations do you have?
Clearly, there is room for marginal comments, but I see far more pros than cons. The concept of flex-work is still developing and its application is continually improving. This is closely correlated with other trends, such as the enormous increase in technological possibilities and therefore, long-distance access. Physical presence is no longer a fixed condition, and this can serve as a solution to, e.g., traffic jams and mobility problems. Many developments are taking place that harmonize perfectly with SW, but perhaps I should again emphasize that the physical proximity of colleagues must be retained. Because, no matter how flexible and pleasant SW may be: interaction is more than just speaking to one another via a monitor. If we can find the right balance, they we will be close to finding the ideal working environment.